Treatment of Equine Disease

Caring for Your horse begins with recognizing symptoms

If a horse is limping, the conclusion is that something is wrong with the limb or the foot. If the horse has a fever, it seems likely that an infection has invaded a part of the body. If the horse is kicking at its sides and rolling on the ground, colic immediately comes to mind.

Observing your horse

Observing your horse

Horses, as prey animals, often do not exhibit the signs of disease. The horse owner must take care in monitoring their horse for any differences that might indicate a health condition.

Although recognition of these symptoms may seem simplistic, an equine owner's awareness of common equine health problems and some basic care techniques that can be put to use right then and there are invaluable in maintaining health and well-being.

For those times when more acute care is needed, an owner must be prepared to trailer the horse efficiently for trips to the veterinarian's office or the equine hospital.

Although many horses live out their lives without having to be treated in an equine hospital, an owner should be familiar with the nearest hospital, understand the procedures, and be prepared to take a seriously ill horse there for advanced treatment and medical management.

How to recognize when your horse needs care

Although your horse cannot speak and tell you that it is less than healthy, careful observation on your part will help prevent minor illnesses and conditions from becoming major threats to the horse's health. When you notice any of the following signs, pay attention to what your horse's body is telling you:

  • Fever
  • Rapid or slow breathing or pulse
  • Discharge from eyes or nose
  • Heat in feet or on limbs
  • Loss of appetite
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Colic
  • Swellings on body, head or limbs
  • Bony enlargements
  • Extreme sensitivity
  • Flared nostrils and frightened or pained appearance
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Unusual lung sounds
  • Chronic coughing
  • Lameness
  • Deformed hooves
  • Excessive sweating or lack of sweat
  • Body sores
  • Muscle spasms
  • Diarrhea or constipation

Prevention and treatment

Many equine diseases and conditions can be prevented with proper use of vaccines, deworming schedules, regular hoof and dental care, proper nutrition and by practicing good equine hygiene. As the owner/caretaker, making sure that these preventative measures are taken care of on a regular basis is one of the best gifts you can give your equine.

Horses can be vaccinated against influenza, tetanus, West Nile virus and rabies, and scheduled dewormings can minimize damage by parasites, but, in spite of the best preventative care, it is inevitable that equines will develop diseases and conditions that need diagnosis and treatment.

The care and attention of a proactive owner or handler can minimize the frequency and severity of equine diseases and conditions through prompt recognition and early treatment.

Generally, caring for the needs of your equine falls into several broad categories:

  • Foot and leg problems
  • Common diseases and conditions
  • Parasites
  • Functional disorders
  • Skin conditions
Your partner in horse healthcare

Your partner in horse healthcare

The veterinarian is a key healthcare partner. Start with a simple healthcare exam so that the veterinarian can become acquainted with your horse prior to an emergency.

At all times, a veterinarian should decide on the best treatment for the disease or disorder affecting the horse. The veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics or combinations of antibiotics to treat a number of diseases. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are used for pain management, fever reduction, osteoarthritis and other cases where an anti-inflammatory is needed. Some diseases, such as cancer, will require surgery, accompanied by chemotherapy, immunotherapy and/or radiation treatment.

Foot and leg problems

Caring for limb and hoof problems often includes making sure your farrier does therapeutic shoeing and trimming of hooves to ensure a balanced foot, then following through with proper monitoring of foot conditions.

As the owner/caretaker of your horse, you can make sure the horse gets stall rest when needed. You can take care of an afflicted limb by applying cold or heat compresses, by administering prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs, such as phenylbutazone and corticosteroids, and providing other treatments necessary to prevent and improve ailing limbs.

Corticosteroids are frequently injected into the joints of horses and serve to dramatically lower the local inflammatory response in joints, but should be used only after an appropriate clinical work-up.

Hoof abscesses, laminitis and navicular disease are treated by opening and draining abscesses, soaking the hoof in Epsom salts, use of antibiotics, therapeutic shoeing, changes in diet, use of anti-inflammatory drugs and stall rest on a soft bed of shavings or sand. An owner can take care of many of these hoof problems under the direction of the farrier and veterinarian.

Common diseases and conditions

The veterinarian has a number of medications and treatment options when faced by common infectious diseases and conditions.

By knowing a few basic treatments and understanding the use of medications, you will be able to work in concert with your veterinarian to care for your horse on an ongoing basis by administering proper doses of medication and taking care of a variety of other needs.

Following is a list of common diseases and conditions along with some of the medications used to treat them. Rather than have the veterinarian make daily barn calls, you can learn how to administer medications and follow through with other treatment:

  • Bacterial infections, including respiratory disease, anaerobic infections, pneumonia, Potomac fever, wounds and many minor infections may be treated with antibiotics such as trimethoprim sulfa, penicillin and ceftiofur.
  • Diarrhea in equines is often treated with bismuth subsalicylate, found in Pepto-Bismol. It is frequently used alone or in combination with antibiotics. When the diarrhea is severe, resulting in dehydration or laminitis, intravenous fluids are sometimes administered.
  • Constipation, some cases of gas colic and esophageal obstruction or "choke" are often treated with N-butylscopolammonium, or Buscopan, which acts as an antispasmodic and anticholinergic. It is also used to create smooth muscle relaxation when rectal exams are necessary.
  • Impaction colic and constipation may be treated with dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, which softens the fecal mass and increases intestinal secretion and motility.
  • Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) is commonly used with equines because of its anti-inflammatory, mild antibacterial and analgesic properties. It is administered for emergency treatment of brain and spinal cord inflammation caused by trauma, for tying up, laminitis and endotoxemia, as well as to reduce swelling and inflammation in a number of conditions. It is also used in sterile saline solution to flush infected joints.
  • Corticosteroids are used systemically in high doses in emergencies for anaphylactic reactions and shock. They are used in lower doses to treat hives, itching and inflammatory diseases.
  • Corticosteroids are also used topically to treat conditions of the skin and eyes. They may be compounded with other active ingredients, such as antibiotics, antifungals or miticides.
  • Equine gastric ulcers are often treated with Cimetidine and Ranitidine which prevent the stomach from producing acid. Omeprazole and sucralfate are also used for the management and prevention of gastric ulcers.


Treatment and prevention go hand in hand when it comes to dealing with parasites. According to the best sources, there isn't a horse on the planet that is not plagued by parasites in one form or another. Seasonal, interval and daily programs have been developed for controlling internal parasites, including bots, large and small strongyles, thread, pin, tape, and lung worms, habronema and ascarids.

You can prevent parasite related health issues

You can prevent parasite related health issues

Develop a plan for deworming your horses with your veterinarian. Oral dewormers are easy to use, and inexpensive.

For maximum effectiveness, treatment works best when all horses on the premises are dewormed at one time and at regular intervals. The dewormer should be highly effective for the species in question and used in the correct dosage with care being taken to make sure the horse does not spit out some of the dewormer.

Any new arrivals should be dewormed and quarantined for three weeks before joining the resident horses.

In addition to the regular deworming program, environmental control of parasites is important. This means keeping the premises clean by removing manure and old bedding from stalls daily and at regular intervals from corrals and paddocks and proper disposal of all waste materials. Composting is one means of environmentally friendly disposal.

Insect control is also of major importance to prevent parasites from attacking the horse. This is achieved with proper treatment of all areas and animals with appropriate repellents and insecticides.

As the equine owner, you can care for your horse by educating yourself about parasite control and making sure that the recommended schedules are followed.

Functional disorders

Heaves and colic are two common functional disorders that affect many equines.

Heaves, also known as COPD, is an inflammatory disease of the lungs of horses. Treatment is best achieved through reducing exposure to dust from hay and other sources and by avoiding accumulations of ammonia-soaked bedding in stalls. Providing a clean, healthy barn and stall environment to protect the horse from dust, ammonia exposure and other environmental factors that are destructive to health is the responsibility of all caretakers.

Medications that effectively treat heaves include bronchodilators and corticosteroids. Clenbuterol is often used to treat heaves, as well as other respiratory distress cases and bronchospasms. As the caretaker, you can monitor your equine and make sure that conditions such as heaves are treated regularly with the appropriate medications per the directions of your veterinarian.

Colic in equines takes a number of forms and the treatment is determined by the severity of signs exhibited by the horse. In cases of colic, you should remove all food and water and keep the horse as calm and comfortable as possible.

Since colic is common in equines, it is important to educate yourself about how best to take care of your particular equine when colic strikes.

In mild cases of spasmodic or gas colic walking the horse for 15 minutes or so will sometimes work off the problem.

Colic with severe symptoms may indicate displacement of parts of the intestine, torsions, hernia or volvulus, which is a twisted large colon. Severe colic often requires surgical intervention and a veterinarian should be called immediately.

Most forms of colic are treatable with intestinal lubricants and pain relievers. If not, treatment with N-butylscopolammonium bromide, which is a short-acting antispasmodic that won't mask more serious conditions, is helpful in many cases.

Skin conditions

Numerous skin conditions can affect an equine. Itchy skin disorders, summer sores, hives, insect bites, patchy shedding, ringworm, rain scalds, contact dermatitis, abscesses, grease heel, warts and tumors, including sarcoids, melanomas and others, affect not only the skin of the horse, but its general health.

Care for skin conditions as varied as the range of conditions. Skin preparations containing organophosphate insecticides, wettable powder, antibiotics, ivermectin paste, corticosteroids, saline soaks, Betadine scrubs and various ointments and lotions may be used by the owner under the direction of a veterinarian on an ongoing basis.

Caring for your horse with a skin condition often involves clipping the hair from the area, cleansing with an appropriate shampoo and applying a medicinal ointment or lotion.

Wounds and lacerations also affect the skin of the horse. Having a well-stocked first-aid kit and knowledge about wound care is invaluable. Abrasions, animal bites, lacerations and puncture wounds can often be taken care of by the horse's owner. Knowing how to stop bleeding, apply ointments and bandage a wound is important.

Puncture wounds, serious lacerations, and animal bites often require more medical expertise. Calling a veterinarian who can give tetanus shots, prescribe antibiotics and check the extent of the injury may be crucial to maintaining the health of your horse.

Warts, cancers and surface tumors sometimes require surgical removal. Cryotherapy, radiation and immune therapy may be used with malignant tumors. The services of your veterinarian are extremely important in diagnosing and treating cancer and other severe skin conditions. As the owner/caretaker you should be prepared to follow up with the care that your horse will need following surgery or treatment.

Dig deeperTM

The more you learn about equine healthcare, the better you can help your horses live a healthy life. Helping your horse be healthy also makes financial sense. Many expensive veterinary procedures can be reduced if you practice routine healthcare, including vaccinations, deworming, periodic dental care, and hoof care.

A great place to start your journey of acquiring equine healthcare knowledge begins here.

About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.